The Urban Brain Lab, established by the Urban Brain Research Programme, is an experiment in resetting the relations between the sociological and neurobiological sciences. Initially funded by an ESRC ‘Transforming Social Science’ grant, the Lab investigates ‘urbanicity’ – the connections between the social and the neurological lives of urban citizens, with particular attention to mental health. The relationship between urban life and mental health has been a topic of longstanding interest in the social sciences – but is also now receiving particular attention within the neurobiological and psychiatric sciences, as investigators try to see whether the effects and process of city living can actually be measured at the level of the brain. The Urban Brain Lab is an attempt to put these two interests together. It asks: can urban sociologists and neuroscientists work together, in order to better map the complex interactions between the socio-political life of the city and the development of psychiatric problems? But as it pursues this question, the Lab is also trying to show that there may be room for a different kind of relationship between sociology and the biosciences. Aligning itself with what the microbiologists and physicist Carl Woese has called ‘a new biology for a new century,’ the Lab asks: what would it mean to also come up with ‘a new sociology for a new century’?
Sociology has always had ideas about the ‘nature’ of the human subject at its heart. So what are sociologists to make of recent research in the biosciences that has significantly advanced and changed our understanding of the kinds of creatures that human beings are? Such research has not always lived up to its promises. Still, we now know a great deal more than we used to about the biological possibilities through which human lives are shaped or constrained, and within which human subjects are made and re-made. In particular, the new brain sciences – neuroscience and neurogenetics – have proposed new ways to think about the emergence of mental health problems that can blunt and alter those lives, and radically re-arrange the experience of being an individual human subject. Yet, at the same time as this neurobiological architecture is being sketched out, evidence increasingly shows that it is fashioned by the body’s internal and external environments, by social relations, by culture, and by styles of living.
This takes us beyond the familiar idea that psychiatric diagnoses are ‘social constructs’ – and into a dynamic space in which social relations leave measurable biological and neurobiological traces, in the same moment that neurobiology modulates, enables and constrains social action and interaction. We are thus at a potentially transformative moment in the relationship between the social and biological sciences. The new possibilities are already being explored by some in social psychology. In the cultural sciences and humanities, neuroscientific discoveries have sometimes been uncritically embraced. Yet many responses from the social sciences – particularly sociology – still respond through the familiar discourse of critical suspicion. Of course we should not abandon our critical faculties. But at the Urban Brian Lab we want to argue that the moment has come to risk something beyond criticism – a ‘revitalized’ style of knowledge in the social sciences that will produce transformative sociological impacts on research within the life sciences, and on end users of that research.
To investigate this basic idea, the Lab chose to work on one traditional area of sociological research in which a ‘revitalized’ sociology might be especially practical, thinkable and impactful: this is the relationship between urban life and mental health. We chose this topic because the relationship between urban life and mental health is a prominent area in neuroscience that wanders into an area of longstanding sociological expertise. But at the same time, there is already a subterranean relationship between biology, mental health and urban living in the sociological archive, which might serve as the grounding for the revitalized sociology we advocate. From the classical social theorist Georg Simmel on, there have been many reflections on ‘mental life in the metropolis’ in social theory, and many speculations about the relations between ‘external culture,’ ‘techniques of life’ and ‘bodily existence.’
So our questions are: how might an urban sociology bring the neurological lives of urban citizens back into the centre of its research programme? And how can sociology have an impact on the end-users in this exemplary area of biological and neuroscientific research? More generally, we also want to know: what would the research agenda for a ‘revitalized’ sociology look like? And how could it collaborate with the contemporary research agendas of the biological and neurobiological sciences? We are currently undertaking conceptual and historical work in order to reanimate re-animate sociology’s biological ghosts – clarifying the relations between sociological and biological styles of thought, identifying the reasons behind sociological resistance to a renewed relationship with the life sciences, and seeing what might be learned for the research agenda of a ‘revitalized’ sociology. In 2014, we will hold two intensive ‘re-vitalization’ workshops, with leading scholars, in order to generative a collaborative engagement between the sociology of urban life and the neuroscience of wellbeing in city living. The goal is for these workshops to lead directly to the development and piloting of an empirical research project for a revitalized sociology of the mental life of the metropolis
Contact Nikolas Rose for more information.